IN THE SPRING OF 1994, John Alston, then a third-year assistant professor of music at Swarthmore College, started a boys’ chorus in Chester. Wanting to begin small, he auditioned boys at a single elementary school in Chester and found seven who wanted to join. One of those boys was Joshua Shockley.
This is the 25 year journey of John and Josh. Their story is the story of the Chester Children’s Chorus, a story of commitment, determination, and love.
"He wasn’t supposed to make the choir," John admitted. "He hadn’t passed the audition. The next day he came up, 'Hey, Mr. Alston.' He’s a rising third grader, all bright and shiny. I said, 'I’m sorry Josh, but you’re not on my list. You didn’t make it.' In a tiny high-pitched voice, he shouted, 'I’m staying. I made it. I’m in the choir.'"
JOSH: John let me stay. After that, we just began building this incredible relationship. My dad was on drugs and in and out of my life. John was the light. The choir was the light for me.
JOHN: That first summer, every morning I drove around Chester in a borrowed College van, picked up the boys, and brought them to the music building. I taught them the simple songs
I’d learned while in the Newark Boys Chorus; mostly spirituals and other folk songs. I had no idea what I was doing, but the boys and I were so comfortable with each other. After rehearsal,
we’d eat—lunch meat or the occasional pizza —and then hit the field for a game of baseball or football. One evening in the middle of that first summer camp, Josh called me on my cell. I was startled, thinking that there was an emergency. He just wanted to say hi. We managed to learn a few songs. During rehearsals I said to the boys repeatedly, “Come on guys, sit up straight, we gotta do this. We can do this.”
JOSH: It was his love and admiration for some kids in Chester, who he didn’t know, who came with so much baggage, so much drama. He never made us feel bad for coming from
Chester. He never made us feel bad for giving up at times. He never made us feel bad for being bad. It was like, “C’mon guys. Let’s go. We’re young men. This is how we do it.”
JOHN: By the time Josh is a sixth grader, we were perhaps 20 boys and two girls, who were older sisters. Josh and I were like family, now, and he told me that he wanted to go to school
in Swarthmore, where I was living at the time. The simplest way to do it was for me to become his legal guardian. His mom and I talked, we hired a lawyer, we signed the papers, and he moved in with me.
JOSH: I didn’t hesitate. I remember going to the lawyer’s office and watch my mom and John sign the paperwork. It was probably the happiest day of my life.
JOHN: On weekends he went home, but Sunday through Thursday Josh is in my house struggling to do homework. We argued a lot about writing down and completing assignments, but that fall
was the first time he passed all his classes. Then it all fell apart. Josh moved out, but he continued to sing in the CCC.
JOSH: I was growing older and I was rebelling. One day I ran away from John’s house. That’s when I got into the street stuff.
JOHN: Josh’s two oldest brothers were drug dealers, and he and another brother followed in their footsteps. Josh quit the CCC after ninth grade, and we didn’t see much of each other for a while. Then, I ran into him and he told me that he had shot a rival drug dealer and the police were looking for him. Soon after, he was in prison. I was so angry with him, but still went to visit him a few times in prison,
JOSH: I felt like, “Man, even though I’m in jail, he made me feel like I was still somebody, like I was bigger than my cell.” Fast forward. I came home, I did good. I enrolled in community college. John got me a job at Swarthmore College. I became a Democratic ward leader and was the head of the Young Democrats for the City of Chester. Unfortunately, at the time, I was still carrying a firearm. A year and a half later, I got pulled over and went back to prison for another six and half years.
JOHN: I was more heartbroken and angry the second time, and didn’t visit Josh or accept his calls for several years. But then he was released and needed a place
JOSH: John found me a room with a shared bathroom. He paid four months’ rent. I cried so many nights in that room.
JOHN: After his second release, Josh returned to improving himself. He is more determined than ever to become successful. Now, Josh is a caseworker, helping Chester folks find jobs and
keep them. He has quickly become his employer’s most successful caseworker and wants to become a motivational speaker.
JOSH: Part of my job is speaking in front of groups of my clients. One of the reasons I’m able to do this is because of singing at all those CCC concerts in front of hundreds of people. And here I am now, with a great job helping people who really need it—even though I’m a convicted felon. I give my clients what John gave me, a belief in themselves. He made me feel like I was bigger than the world.
JOSH: He’s still that light and hope for Chester’s children, always reminding them, “You can be better, you can read, you can do math. It’s okay to play. It’s okay to be a kid.”
JOHN: I don’t know what made me go into Chester 25 years ago and start a boys’ chorus. I didn’t know anything about teaching children. But I know now that those seven boys were teaching me what I was supposed to do with my life.
JOSH: John gives us all hope. We can be a president, a doctor, a judge, or a police officer. We can change the world. What better place to learn that than in the CCC with John Alston as your director. It doesn’t get any better that.